WEIRDness and the Influence of Culture on Cognition

by Reihan Salam

One of my fixations is that while it is certainly possible for one society to learn from another, it’s really important for policymakers to think hard about the historical context and institutional environment of the particular societies in which they operate. So I was really delighted to read Ethan Watters’ Pacific Standard article on the interplay between culture and cognition, which focuses on the work of the social scientist Joe Henrich and his colleagues Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan:

As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.

The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.

The work of Heine et al. has interesting implications for diverse societies as well: when deep cross-cultural differences manifest themselves within a society, institutions will have to adapt to accommodate models of the world that are potentially in tension. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.